Categories
activism Book reviews Politics prejudice Uncategorized women

If you were honest, what would you say?

Or Janice’s Goats

***Long Read for Twixt Week***

I used to think I lived in a free country – born in the UK in the 1960s, it was a long time before I questioned the idea. Even when I discovered it wasn’t entirely true, I was still aware that as countries went, our country in the 20th century was relatively good on freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

My but it’s changed, and not in a good way. Politically, we now have pressures on our freedoms from both right and left, each in their own way, and for their own reasons. Can you tell which is which? Do you judge both varieties in the same way? You might like to test your attitude to one or two of these: (or skip straight on to ‘a failed workshop’ below, if you already know what I mean).

Police Crime and Sentencing Bill

Nationality and Borders Bill

Julian Assange extradition

Cancel Cancel Culture

Fawlty Towers

Johnny Rotten

J K Rowling

Russia and China

The first thing is to see that we are – understandably – very confused. Three examples from my direct experience

A failed workshop

Long ago, before covid, I was at a literary festival (no wait – let me think – this matters – it was 12 years ago) I ran a workshop on freedom of expression. I did it because I’d recently published a book which I thought might be controversial. It was about child abuse, and incest, and other nasty things – but the arena in which these things played out was a small-town Christian community so when we published, I was kind of waiting for complaints.

I got complaints. What surprised me was that they weren’t about religion. They were accusing the writer of appropriation because she had a main character who was lesbian. It was only a handful of complaints, and every single one backed off when I said to them ‘do you know the author? Why do you think she’s not a lesbian?’

So, I figured, the complaints were ideological so, when I was asked to set up a series of festival workshops on issues relevant to writers, I decided I wanted to know what writers thought they could or couldn’t express. I set out to explore our writing and publishing world in search of taboos, and find out what the workshoppers thought could not be set down in print. The workshop was a flop. None of the attendees could think of any taboos. They were utterly sure that artists of all varieties could and should say anything they want to. I had to prompt them to get a grudging agreement that you probably shouldn’t name living characters and slander them.

I admit I concluded they mostly weren’t professional writers or else they weren’t being honest, but just think how different that workshop would be in 2021.  The complainers about that probably-not-a-lesbian author were a small minority on the other end of email exchanges, no-doubt forerunners of the post-modernist tide demanding ‘authenticity’.

I think attempting authenticity is a good idea when, for example, a film director looks for black people to play black parts, disabled people to play disabled parts and so on – but to say that authors are only allowed to write about people like them – that fiction authors are only allowed to use their real life standpoint – is a step too far for me. As Ursula le Guin put it, ‘it’s fiction. We make stuff up.’

A Mantel Piece

In Hilary Mantel’s collection of her journalistic writings, she includes an essay on the censorship she experienced around her when living in Jeddah. Writing in 1989, she is explaining the concept of censorship, on behalf of a UK readership whom she assumes have not heard of such things. She gives examples: my favourite was the scouring of the recipes on the back of packets of imported sauce mixes, in order to strike out (and I quote) ‘that dreadful word, “pork”’. Mantel explains that

…you cannot abolish the concept of pork from the world, but if you are assiduous you can unsay the word; if your felt tips are busy enough, and numerous enough, you can take away its name and thus gradually take away its substance, leaving it a queasy, nameless concept washing around in the minds of unbelievers, a meat which will gradually lose its existence because there is no way to talk about it.

Does that situation sound familiar to you at all? She then moves on to talk about the UK’s reaction to the Rushdie affair. In case you’re not old enough to know, the Ayatollah of Iran condemned a book Rushdie wrote, called The Satanic Verses – in fact, he went so far as to condemn Rushdie himself, calling a fatwa against both Rushdie and his publishers.

Mantel observes that some authors and commentators in the UK responded by asking whether the book was, in fact, bad form in some way. Mantel comments, ‘politeness may be the ruin of the West’. She serves up a typically English (ie, devastatingly polite) verdict on those in the UK who ‘cast doubt on Rushdie’s integrity’ or called for ‘the withdrawal of the book’.

‘Perhaps,’ she writes, ‘it is understandable that the authors of children’s books and light social comedies should decline to defend The Satanic Verses. Their freedom of expression is not at issue.’

I cheer on Mantel’s view here. The authors she describes are an example of the ‘sheep’ of our society. Rather like the attendees of that workshop I ran, they probably don’t even tell themselves about self-censorship, so can’t possibly tell anyone else. In more recent years, in publishing particularly, we have seen what I consider to be an extremely craven backing away from any colleague who has been accused of anything that people seem to fear might ‘rub off’. The consequence is the enabling of mass bullying, which those authors appear to manage not to notice.

Pronouns

In recent years many women, particularly if they’ve been active in the trade union movement or party politics, have had much to say on the pressures being applied over how people talk about sex and gender. I for one have expended a lot of energy defending the vocabulary women need to describe our political and social experience, and to maintain safeguarding boundaries. Our statements on the topic are often met with determined efforts at making us stop it.

I did suggest to my sisters at one point that perhaps we should concede the whole pronoun thing – I’ve always been of the opinion that a gender-neutral pronoun would be a useful addition to our language – I suggested it because I thought it was more important that we get ‘female’ and ‘woman’, and the language of childbirth clear. (Not just because of the women’s rights v trans rights debate but it really is still very hard for people like midwives and doulas to converse on social media, because of the tendency of the sites to assume naming women’s body parts can only equal pornography).

But I have changed my mind. ‘Misgendering’ is being treated as though it was a crime. It has taken several court cases to assert that using ‘wrong’ pronouns is not a crime. (See Maya Forstater and Harry Miller ) The assumption that we are morally obliged to apply people’s required pronouns when talking about them is a whole lot different to politely referring to people according to their wishes when talking to them. The latter is often useful and usually harmless. The former is accepting censorship.

Fortunately, I believe, the refusal of ‘required pronouns’ has been more widespread amongst the young than many suppose. A recent survey reported in ‘Prospect’ magazine (‘Gen Z explained’ in winter special 2022) states that 75% of ‘Gen Z’ respondents would agree to a designated pronoun for someone – but these are university students. I’d put it at less than half if taking a sample from secondary school students I’ve mixed with lately.

I’m less concerned about that though, now we’ve established it is NOT a matter for criminal law – I will make my own decisions when presented with pronoun requirements, because I know can. We still need to push back against workplace and judicial bullying on the issue, though. Women in prison can find themselves punished for ‘misgendering’, and that report about ‘Gen Z’ somehow managed to have a whole section on attitudes to gender, identity and sexuality without using the word ‘sex’. It suggests to me that ‘sex’ has become a ‘queasy, nameless concept’ for the report’s authors (see ‘pork’ above). It suggests serious bullying has led to serious self-censorship.

Authoritarianism, bigotry and bullies

I reject censorship and compelled speech, especially when enforced by police officers and employers because it’s directly against our beleaguered human rights. I spoke to a woman recently who is considered one of the ‘extremists’ in the women’s rights v trans rights situation. What makes her ‘extreme’ is her practice of calling a male a male, however they ‘identify’. Speaking to her, I found her view both reasonable and useful. Many women struggle with the current constraints, especially if they have been abused, or need to express safeguarding concerns about a sex-related issue. This ‘extremist’ woman told me she had seen such relief on the faces of women hearing her forthright words. They needed a model of someone calmly and unwaveringly expressing what they could see but not say. She considers her stance far from extreme, she considers it a kindness and a necessity.

I think she’s absolutely right and, as long as no-one starts laying down the law about such situations, your decision about words you say is just fine, whatever it is. I suggest being diplomatic when it seems right to you, and being forthright when you see a need.

I reject ‘cancel culture’. I consider it anti-fa gone mad. Young people have picked up on the techniques their elders have used to contain genuinely violent fascist movements, and a noisy minority are adding rowdy bully-tactics to boycott actions such as were applied so successfully against apartheid South Africa, in attempts to put a stop to anything they happen to disagree with.

The inability to accept others having meetings, giving lectures or writing books you disagree with is called ‘bigotry’. I don’t know where this idea got turned on its head but bigotry means intolerance of others’ views. Those militant youngsters and their refuse-to-grow-up grey-haired apologists are bigots, and bigotry leads to bullying.

Decency and respect

I think the vital point which gets missed, as our country sinks into ever more authoritarian attitudes, is that you don’t need laws, or rules, or bullies, to maintain decent social behaviour. As an editor and a publisher, I was a ferocious defender of the author’s right to lay down whatever words and ideas they needed to but I would from time to time go back to authors and question what I considered to be unnecessary or harmful passages.

I abhorred a large proportion of what I saw on telly when I was a kid, because, long before I had the vocabulary to express the idea, I found both news and entertainment were regularly racist, sexist, classist and gratuitously violent and sensational. Many of the things I abhorred are now actually removed from viewing schedules, because decency has prevailed. At least I thought it had. I hope it was decency, because if it was enforced censorship, I disapprove. I refer you to Eveline Beatrice Hall: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

A decent society does not encourage gratuitous vulgarity and abusiveness, nor does it allow vulnerable minorities to become scapegoats or the habitual butt of jokes. We should be sensitive to how our national conversations are going. I actually left out a line in one of my quotes from Hilary Mantel above because I thought, on its own, published in 2021 as opposed to when she wrote her piece, it would look unnecessarily critical of Muslim culture as a whole. There is a nasty tendency for that in our society at the moment, therefore decency requires avoiding anything that appears to support that tendency unless that something is 100% accurate and necessary. (Please pay attention – I’m NOT saying Mantel said anything wrong. Don’t think of ‘cancelling’ her!)

You can’t easily made decisions like those I make as an editor in an authoritarian country full of bullies. That’s why defending freedom of expression is vital.

Now, if you don’t know why I’ve called this piece ‘Janice’s Goats’ but you were polite enough to read it anyway, this would be a great time for you to read Janice Turner’s article in the Times, 24th Dec 2021. Here’s a link.

Oh and one more thing…

Just in case I haven’t convinced you, neither official censorship nor mob-attempts at cancel culture work. Why is that…?

Goats are fearless – here’s Stephanie Winn

Goats are curious – here’s my response to a book launch getting ‘cancelled’.

Categories
Hastings Labour media Politics Uncategorized women

Anatomy of a witch hunt

A newly elected councillor (let us call her Councillor A) abstains in a council vote to make another councillor (let’s say Councillor B) Deputy Mayor. No news there, you would have thought.

But when news gets out, the inevitable speculative social media posts appear, quickly escalating to accusing not just Councillor B but every councillor who voted for her of transphobia.

After a flurry of statements, demands for more statements, and local press articles, Councillor A finally makes her accusation, on social media. She writes:

"In May I abstained from voting for Councillor [redacted] to be deputy mayor on grouns of conscience following her posting several social media posts that contained anti trans sentiment, as well as her refusal to accept the Equality Act as a valid document and her refusal to support the party policy on Self ID in conversation with myself."

Let us take these acccusations one by one. No evidence has been offered, as far as I know but…

 ‘several social media posts that contained anti trans sentiment’

I assume this is a reference to her once sharing an invitation by a women’s group to respond to the Government’s public consultation on GRA reform. (that’s the Gender Recognition Act) I’ll give details of why tens of thousands of women did that later in this blog.

‘refusal to accept the Equality Act as a valid document’

As far as I know Councillor B fully supports the Equality Act, friends tell me she emphatically supports it, and has said so whenever asked, whereas I now hear that our CLP wants to ‘reform’ the Equalities Act, with Councillor A’s full support.

‘refusal to support the party policy on self ID in conversation with myself’

Fellow party members are pretty sure Councillor A herself was among those who declined (which I guess amounts to refusal) to support the party policy on sex-based rights in a recent Labour Party meeting, so she obviously knows supporting every line of party policy in every situation is not compulsory – indeed, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone to go with every single clause of it.

So we’re left with two counts of having to prove a negative, and one question as to an alleged conversation. I personally worry about the content and tone of an alleged conversation that leads to someone having to ‘refuse’ to support an item of party policy.

Councillor A’s accusation is then shared to a large local social media group by the local CLP secretary who writes:

Various individuals on social media pages and the local papers then go to town on the council’s ‘trans rights problem’.

Do we have a story here? Well, there is the press release from the local Pride organisation, stating that ‘one councillor knew of her views on the trans community’, and Pride claims to know about, but does not reproduce, offending social media posts, and it then goes on to refer to ‘posts like the ones shared by [Councillor B], combined with bigoted think-pieces in legacy media…’

Still no actual evidence. What is meant by ‘legacy’ posts? – is it screenshots taken from one, often private, group later posted in public? Whether or not we *should* legally get to see such things and whether they have anything to do with Councillor B is another matter but, so far, to my knowledge, we haven’t been given any evidence.

But no matter, the social media storm grows, causing fallings-out, and refusals by various people to work with various other people, and most recently producing demands that councillor after councillor repeat Stonewall’s mantra, ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘trans men are men’.

=====================================

That, as far as it goes, is the story. It led to major, I would say actionable, accusations from the stage at Sunday’s Pride do. Over the last four months, representatives from Pride/HRRA have been approached by the council both privately and on public record and, when they seemed concerned, they were invited on several occasions to make a formal complaint with relevant links but neither HP nor HRRA have done so, nor have they or the councillor who made the public claim offered any evidence for their concerns.

Update 06/09/2021: Because I was told there are accusations of the council not communicating, I investigated this and found that reps from HRRA had discussions about the situation with an ex-councillor and current councillors, including the council’s equalities lead, and extensive email exchanges. They were offered the means to produce evidence and complain officially. They did not want to do this.

=====================================

Many people are asking, as they often do on the subject of the sex and gender issue…

Why does it all get so nasty?

To answer that, I now need to explain why tens of thousands of women shared invitations to respond to that Government consultation on GRA reform, and also why so many people seem to think the women’s groups who did so are ‘anti-trans hate groups’.

It’s because…

Initially, the government did not consult – they appeared on course to accept Stonewall’s advice that all they need to do to give trans people what they wanted was to cancel the sex exemption in the Equalities Act.

An excerpt from Stonewall’s submission, and a link to details…

https://womansplaceuk.org/references-to-removal-of-single-sex-exemptions/

According to Maria Miller MP, who was dealing with the issue at the time, there was no opposition apart from ‘some people purporting to be feminists.’ There proved to be a large number of purporters, because women were realising that we had a conflict of rights developing if the GRA were reformed to allow for immediate sex self ID – that is, to allow anyone, for any purpose, to be treated in law as the opposite sex on their say-so – not because they had ‘transitioned’ or ‘had the op’ or had a medical condition that their doctor said required it, just on their say-so.

The mantra-like phrase ‘trans women are women, trans men are men’ is the campaigners’ iteration of that idea. Is there a problem with that? At the moment, the Equality Act has 9 separate exemptions. One is for ‘gender reassignment’, and is there to protect trans people. Another is for ‘sex’, and is the legal basis of women’s rights. If, however, ‘trans women are women’ is enshrined in law, the sex exemption becomes meaningless, as does the Sex Discrimination Act.

It also has repercussions for single-sex attraction – another protected characteristic in our Equality Act. Differences of opinion as to how that might work have led to some people feeling there’s a conflict that makes separate groups for same-sex attracted people necessary, an idea that others find so abhorrent that it has led to several instances of gay and lesbian people getting drummed off Pride marches in recent years.

In both those cases, giving ‘self ID’ or the concept of ‘innate gender identity’ legal standing takes away the legal tools that women need to deal with issues arising from their sex – their biology – because they are ‘adult human females’ – that is the dictionary definition of what we are, and became one women’s group’s campaign call in response to ‘trans women are women’. That’s why it is now called ‘hate speech’ by trans rights activists. That’s another blinder against women. Misogyny is not, so far, considered a hate-crime aggravator, so when things get heated, only the slogans from the women’s side of the campaign can be called out as ‘hate speech’. Even as things stand now, trans people are better protected in law than mere women.

The GRA consultation

I was one of the women who filled in that consultation. I said something along these lines:

Trans women are trans women. They are protected in law. They have the same human rights as everyone else. They should be treated with dignity and respect, just like everyone else. They are protected in law from discrimination, and we should all contribute to their being allowed to live their lives, call themselves what they want, dress how they want and believe what they want, just like everyone else. Also, like everyone else, they deserve better health and social care provision than they are currently getting so yes, I daresay the GRA does need reforming but not in a manner that disables women’s sex-based rights. One law should not be set up to trump another.

‘There is no conflict of rights’?

We are often told that. My CLP set out to pass a motion supporting trans rights, saying there was no conflict of rights. I suggested that in that case, they should also support sex-based rights in the motion. They refused, saying I was being ‘provocative’. Well, when I say they refused, my amendment was lost by one vote.

It has recently been demonstrated (in a court case concerning male sex offenders assaulting inmates in female prisons) that the balance of rights as it stands now is already detrimental to women – here’s the relevant part of the ruling, and a link if you’d like the details…


https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2021/1746.html

So women have good reason to stand by our own definition of ourselves. Here’s a twitter-thread from Jeremy Corbyn’s former policy manager, listing the issues we still need to resolve before self-ID is feasible…

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1430569612748414977.html

The fact that we still have all this to do is the reason the Labour Party manifesto states an intention to ‘work towards’ rather than instantly grant, self-ID.

Stonewall, Pride and the rest of them are not happy with the wait but their only alternative strategy seems to be demanding that everyone repeats their mantra, and periodically making a public attack on a woman, bullying her in a way that generally makes the majority stay quiet, for fear of being the next target.

Another mantra they love to hear repeated is

Trans rights are human rights

What does that mean? It’s true that trans people have the same human rights as the rest of us – that includes the right to our own beliefs, the right to express those beliefs, and a right not to be bullied into accepting and parroting others’ beliefs. No-one has to say ‘trans women are women’. The fact that some of our councillors responded to Councillor B being publicly bullied by queuing up to agree to ‘trans women are women’ is unnecessary and (in my view) an abject failure to defend a colleague from the witch hunters. If that’s what they believe then, as demonstrated, it is their right to do so but they might like to think about the recent Forstater case decision which confirms their duty in law to protect their colleagues from harassment and discrimination for their beliefs. That includes the right not to believe something, and protection from compelled speech.

Maya Forstater announces the result of the court hearing:

Excerpt – ‘This created a legal precedent that people should not face discrimination or harassment at work or as users of services because of their beliefs about sex and gender identity.’

How do we solve this?

Ultimately, the only solution – for trans women and for natal women – is to dump the societal demands of gender (so everyone feels free to dress, behave etc as they need to) and put an end to male violence, so women do not need to be cautious about male access.

That could take a while though so, in the meantime I suggest there are two options: either absolutely everyone must shut up about women’s rights, and repeat the mantras whenever they are required to do so or else councils should stop giving good money, humble obeisance and regular sacrificial victims to Stonewall, Pride et al. I’m sure they could find a better way of showing off their commitment to equality and diversity.

Which solution do you prefer?

=========================

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Further info:

The Labour Party Manifesto 2019, page 66

"nsure that the single-sex based exemptions contained in the Equality Act 2010 are understood and fully enforced in service provision." - 2019 manifesto, p66

When the women’s campaign first came to the media’s attention, Jeremy Corbyn, then leader of the Labour Party, had this to say: “People are free to campaign within the party and publicly, of course they are, and raise these issues and have that discussion.” – Jeremy Corbyn on the Andrew Marr Show, 28 Jan 2018.  That seems to me to be the least one would except in a country that has laws protecting freedom of speech and belief – not that any of our current councillors have taken part in any such campaign, as far as I know.

Categories
activism prejudice Uncategorized women

My last word

..because as fast as I use them, people try and make them mean something else.

Categories
activism Politics Uncategorized women

The women are back in town

On Monday, I went to a meeting in London. I have set out, four times in the last two days, to do a write up. Each time, I went into high-energy, high-speed mode, and ended up with half a dozen pages of what was mostly a rant aimed at my CLP, and other organisations that claim to know the meaning of solidarity.